A decorated Polk County paramedic has been arrested and a longtime captain with the county’s fire rescue department will be arrested after the captain persuaded the paramedic to help him steal coronavirus vaccines meant for first responders, Sheriff Grady Judd said Tuesday.
Paramedic Joshua Colon, 31, was arrested Monday afternoon. He faces several felony charges, according to an arrest report, including forgery, uttering a false instrument, criminal use of personal identification, creating a fictitious person and falsifying an official record as a public servant. He has resigned from Polk County Fire Rescue, Chief Robert Weech said at a news conference Tuesday.
Weech and Judd said Colon had been given a Paramedic of the Year award in 2020.
Fire Rescue Capt. Anthony Damiano will be arrested within the next day, Judd said at the same news conference. Damiano is on his way back from a work assignment in California. A fire rescue employee for 17 years and a captain for 14 of those years, he will likely face theft and official misconduct charges.
The Sheriff’s Office began investigating after a battalion chief noticed discrepancies in the paperwork Colon filed after an assignment to vaccinate other first responders, Judd said. Colon had done such work before, apparently without issue.
But investigators discovered that the paperwork for this round of vaccinations included three falsified forms: one with the name of a former Haines City firefighter, and two with fake names, one of which resembled another former Haines City firefighter.
Deputies interviewed Colon at his lawyer’s office, Judd said, where Colon admitted to falsifying the paperwork. He said Damiano had asked him to procure doses of the vaccine for Damiano’s mother. According to the arrest report, Colon initially refused, but Damiano threatened to tell Colon’s supervisors that he was stealing and selling vaccines, which frightened the paramedic.
The next day, Judd said, Damiano ordered Colon to go on a lunch break, and Colon left the vaccines in a refrigerator. When he returned, according to the arrest report, he noticed that three doses were missing but did not report the issue.
At his lawyer’s office, Colon called Damiano, and the two discussed the vaccines while deputies monitored the call, Judd said. Damiano told Colon that the doses were in a car parked outside a friend’s house in Saint Cloud. Judd said deputies found two of the doses there, and that they’re no longer usable. The third dose has not been recovered.
“The bottom line is, Joshua tried to cover for the captain,” Judd said of Colon. “Joshua set up the circumstance for the vaccines to have been stolen. Had Joshua simply gone to his boss right then, he’d have been the hero. Instead he started falsifying paperwork, making up people who didn’t exist to cover it up.”
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Colon had previously handled other rounds of vaccinations for first responders, Weech said, and no discrepancies had been uncovered with those assignments.
“I consider this to be out of character for him,” he said. “I’m confident in saying he made some severe mistakes.”
Colon’s attorney, Bartow lawyer David Carmichael, confirmed many of the details Judd and Weech offered. He also said Colon tried at one point — after finding the vaccines missing but before participating in the cover-up — to contact Weech. Upon finding that the chief was out of town, he went along with Damiano, Carmichael said.
Chris Jonckheer, a spokesman for Polk County Fire Rescue, said he didn’t know whether or not Colon tried to reach the chief, or whether the agency would have a record of such an attempt. He said Weech did go out of town in early January, around the time of the alleged theft.
“Mr. Colon deeply regrets his weakness in failing to alert the Chain of Command to the theft of the vaccine, accepts responsibility for his error in covering up the theft, and in an effort to protect the reputation of his agency, has resigned his position,” Carmichael said in an email.
Judd said he expects Damiano to be arrested when he returns home Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. He was unsure whom, other than his mother, Damiano may have been trying to obtain vaccines for, he said. The friend who lives at the Saint Cloud home where deputies found the car with the vaccines “doesn’t know anything about anything,” Judd said, and is not a suspect in the case.
Damiano is still a Fire Rescue employee, Weech said, though that could change soon. Judd noted that Damiano once served as a reserve Sheriff’s deputy, so “he clearly and unequivocally understands the law.”
“I only have one question for them: What were you thinking?” Judd said. “None of it makes any sense.”
It was the second time in as many weeks that Polk deputies had to arrest public employees, Judd pointed out. Last week, a Sheriff’s deputy was arrested after Judd said he sent text messages to a colleague on the night of the Capitol riot, advocating for “the streets of D.C. run red with the blood of the tyrants.”
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